For the last two years, both at the halfway pole and the finish line, it’s felt important to point out that despite a few stellar projects, and some of the greatest traction ever for independent country artists and albums, we were in the midst of what felt like a lull for projects that really set themselves apart and set the pace for creativity and cultural importance in country music. There just wasn’t that volume of stellar records we had seen in 2014, or in other years previous.
2017 is a different story. It feels like this has been a banner year already, with some of the year’s biggest projects still in the offing. Below is a run down of some of the best projects in Saving Country Music’s estimation.
The first albums highlighted should be considered early candidates for Saving Country Music’s “Album of the Year,” while everything else highlighted should be considered coming highly recommended.
PLEASE NOTE: This only includes albums that have been reviewed by Saving Country Music so far. Just because an album is not included here doesn’t mean it’s not good, or won’t be reviewed in the future.
Recommendations and opinions on albums is encouraged, including leaving your own list of favorite albums in the comments sections below. However, please understand that nothing is “forgotten,” and nobody’s list is “illegitimate” just because one particular album is left off, or a certain album is included. The point of this exercise is to expand the awareness of great music, and that is how it should be approached by all parties. Saving Country Music reviews a very large amount of material, and each year has reviewed more material than the year previous. That said, no critic or outlet can review every single project released in a given genre.
Also, the albums are presented in no particular order.
Zephaniah OHora – This Highway
Zephanaiah OHora’s This Highway just very well might be a modern classic country masterpiece. It’s flawless for what it is, which is a reawakening of everything brilliant and beautiful about the Countrypolitan era of country music, while leaving all the superfluousness of strings and choruses and other overproduction aside. In fact in a strange way, Zephaniah OHora, some 60 years after the original Countrypolitan era, has represented the essence and spirit of what made that era so great even better than some of the original artists and albums that helped define that epoch of American country music.
And don’t let me hear a peep about how some slicked back guy from the Big Apple is incapable of singing country music. Just listen to This Highway, and that perception is immediately discredited. If you want a good excuse to disregard Zephaniah OHora and This Highway, I offer my sincerest apologies. It is still eclectic to take this type of vintage approach to country music, and it won’t put Zephaniah on the Sturgill Simpson trajectory to superstardom. But for what it is and how it’s presented, This Highway leans heavily towards perfection. (read full review)
Jaime Wyatt – Felony Blues
For many of the best practitioners of country music, they don’t choose to pursue country music as a profession, country music chooses them. It becomes a necessity of their circumstances bred from hardship, bad decisions, a misspent youth, or other situations where the burdens of life grow so heavy, the only way to alleviate the load is to put those personal histories and bad experiences into song. With stories spun directly from Jaime Wyatt’s stained history, Felony Blues has the right style, as well as the real world-authenticity that true country music needs to not just send your toes tapping, but to stick to your bones as the real testaments of a life-worn soul.
Exquisitely produced and recorded with an excellent crew of musicians that includes Ted Russell Kamp, Gabe Wincher of The Punch Brothers, and fellow California country artist Sam Outlaw on the duet “Your Loving Saves Me,” the autobiographical, 7-song record is striking in how full and real it sounds, especially when held in contrast to the rather extended era of uninspiring output we find ourselves amidst in independent roots and country music. Though the album was made on a meager budget, no expense was spared if the song called for it, including steel guitar and backup singers, giving this otherwise West Coast country project plenty of Southern textures. (read full review)
Marty Stuart – Way Out West
This album is steeped in a moment when forces thought to be so diametrically opposed in culture began to cross breed in ways we are still trying to match the creativity of today. Being a tireless student of the music as he is, Marty Stuart has gone and made a record that delves into this era with such authority and enthusiasm, it comes as close to matching those original moments as anyone since.
Just like The West itself, Marty Stuart’s new album is vast and diverse. You have the Marty Robbins-style desert ballads, you have the California country Clarence White influence, you have the Native American and the Mexican represented since they have such a profound influence on the land, and it’s all interwoven with the wonder that the American West inspires.
As much as Marty Stuart is a student of country music—and always has been from his days of playing in the bands of Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash—he’s also a teacher. And with a refreshing boldness, and frankly a little bit of guts from running the risk of being misunderstood by some of the fuddy duddy fans of traditional country, Marty Stuart encapsulates a critical time in country and all of American music when country music became cool. And even better, with Way Out West, Marty Stuart proves it still is. (read full review)
Sunny Sweeney – Trophy
With Sunny Sweeney’s new album Trophy, it’s country, it’s Texas, and most importantly, it’s Sunny Sweeney all the way. It is the full package. It is a homecoming for Sunny. Like she says so well in the song “Nothing Wrong with Texas,” we all get so swept up in thinking there’s greener pastures, and better opportunities in latitudes and locations beyond our own, we forget that sometimes the things we go searching for in life are right under our noses. It’s not always a compromise to settle. Sometimes there’s nothing better than what you already have.
Trophy is the name of Sunny Sweeney’s fourth record, and a song about an attitude problem of an ex-girlfriend or wife. But the title is also indicative of a victory. The problem with money and fame is that you can always have more of it. The true victories in life are the ones earned when you discover something about yourself, and achieve a goal that is personal to you. Sometimes this comes with the earning of great wealth and recognition, and sometimes it comes at the compromise of them. But the measurements of fame and wealth are arbitrary and capricious. What’s most important is the personal discoveries you achieve. That is the point of the pursuit of happiness, and what is at the heart of Trophy. (read full review)
Jason Eady – Self-Titled
Jason Eady can do what they can do, but they can’t do what Jason Eady does, which is strip it all back and have the appeal for the music rest entirely on the written composition of a song. Even the most minimalist of performers have to rely a little bit on style, groove, or some sort of window dressing. But for Jason Eady, it’s almost like a type of Zen to him—trying to find the slimmest, most fragile accompaniment to his words as possible where you can’t help but allow the theater of the mind to take over, and your thoughts be submerged in the story and message.
What comes across most starkly on this record is Jason Eady’s use of perspective in his writing. Just like the moments in life, the more you listen and observe, the more a song can reveal its wisdom. It’s not just minimalism that’s at the heart of Jason Eady’s genius, it’s also the slow, careful pondering of moments. This is music for slowing down to—for taking stock. (read full review)
Joseph Huber – The Suffering Stage
It’s hard to say enough about Joseph Huber’s songwriting, and how he’s able to evoke melancholy and forlornness in both timeless and timely narratives, or his ability to step behind most any instrument and pull the magic out of a melody that is eerily perfect for the desired mood and message. But something that can’t be emphasized enough about Huber’s music, and what is at the heart of why his songs have this naturally mournful, yet warming sensation, is simply the way his record’s sound, boiled down to perfunctory recording technique. It’s wholly immersive on the senses, like the smell of the inside of your grandfather’s suitcase.
The Suffering Stage makes reference to the Buddhist philosophy of life as suffering, and to life as a “stage” that we’re all simply players on. Whether it’s a spiritual journey or a theatrical movement, the point is to walk away with something learned; something gained. This is what Joseph Huber delivers on this record. Old, forgotten memories get stirred to the forefront. Theories on life are recalled and reflected upon. And you don’t end up more happy like music is supposed to do, you end up a little sad and nostalgic, but in a way that’s strangely comforting in a manner simple happiness is incapable of delivering. (read full review)
John Moreland – Big Bad Luv
Moreland has always been the apex predator in the songwriting department since he began releasing albums, even preceding Jason Isbell for those who put the effort out to seek Moreland out and listen. But the production of his records has always left a little to be desired. It’s hard for an artist who is used to performing solo to sit in a studio and know what to do with additional musicians, and this came through in the recording process. Don’t mistake this as a desire for Moreland to have a “produced” sound. That would suffocate his music faster than anything. But releasing music that is infectious, that honors groove, that finds a fetching melody is just another way to broaden the audience for John Moreland songs and enhance the experience, and shouldn’t been seen as somehow disrespecting or misunderstanding what’s at the heart of his appeal.
Big Bad Luv is exactly the type of album that John Moreland needed to make, where his songcraft suffers none, but is bolstered by the virtue of a more compositional approach to the music itself. And this is the only place he could improve or “evolve,” because the songwriting was already at the pinnacle. This album works like memories do. Salient, yet immersed in longing. Warm, but tinged with a little bit of pain. The song ends, but the message remains in your heart—and on this album, the melody and beat still frolicking in your toes, while presenting maybe even a more elevated songwriting effort from previous Moreland works, if that is even possible. (read full review)
Colter Wall – Self-Titled
Like opening an old chest long ago stashed away in an attic or crawl space and ages forgotten, but once it’s cracked and the odoriferous concoctions emanating from its bowels mix with the memories tied to the contents in an overwhelming waff almost too much to behold, the yawning of Colter Wall’s vocal aperture is like the spontaneous appearance of a hoary portal into the past where the present day escapes the mind and you find yourself amidst the ghosts of a by-gone epoch.
Colter Wall’s voice is truly a thing to behold. No descriptor or accolade employed to convey its powers of conjuration can be accused of embellishment. The only detriment is that future generations will be burdened to find fresh adjectives to describe it, while us currently present in its audience have the unfair opportunity to attempt to recount its effects while it’s still being presented in its nascent state.
Styles and dialects and phonetics change, but the eternal themes that stir the soul remain, and it’s the seamless tie to what Colter sings about and how he sings it that makes the experience something beyond music. (read full review)
Willie Nelson – God’s Problem Child
Willie Nelson has never been one to rest on his laurels, or rely on past greatness to carry him through today. Even as he enters well into old age, he still approaches the journey with a life force and wisdom to convey his feelings and insight in a way that is both entertaining and enlightening. Hopefully Willie Nelson will live forever, because it’s impossible to fathom a world without Willie in it. And we’re not just talking about living forever through his legacy or his music, because obviously that is secured.
But the hard truth is that Willie won’t be around forever. As one of the most wise souls left on the entire planet, nobody knows this better than Willie. And so we’re going to get through the final stages of his life—which hopefully includes many more years and much more music—the same way we got through the first stages of life on Planet Earth with Willie: relying on his music to bring us the wisdom to work through the hard times, the joy to celebrate the good times, and end up as better people for listening to the careful musings and lesson that only a Willie Nelson song can convey. (read full review)
Dalton Domino – Corners
Songs are at the foundation of what makes Dalton Domino’s Corners so stunning. Written mostly by Dalton himself amidst a move to sobriety, it captures the moments during a transitional phase in life that go on to define us as people, set the stage for the rest of time, and stick out in memory no matter what else fades away. These periods are when the juices of life are at their most robust, and if you can capture them in song, and do so with honesty and eloquence, the result can be something compelling no matter what genre it falls into. That is what Domino does in Corners.
Corners gives the listener a lot to digest and explore. This is not a record you listen to a few times and feel you have a grip on. The more you listen, the more is revealed. Corners feels like an important project in country music, and in Texas music specifically. Dalton Domino is bringing influences to the region that are not entirely foreign to roots music, but do feel lost in the viewshed in the otherwise expansive and diverse Texas scene. It also announces Domino has a creative force, both in songwriting and sound, that we may see hints of it in other artists’ music in the coming months and years as they find their own inspirations in this project. (read full review)
The Brother Brothers – Tugboats
Based out of Brooklyn, The Brother Brothers is the closest thing you can find to Simon & Garfunkel in this century, yet with a primitive country sound. Incredible singing, some of the sweetest fiddle playing and cello accompaniment I’ve heard, and songs that are amazing in both their simplicity, and their ability to put rhyme and reason to complex human emotions.
All we have at the moment is an EP released earlier in 2017 called Tugboats, but in six songs and 18 minutes, The Brother Brothers accomplish what entire folk labels and festival lineups struggle to not accomplish, which is honing in on something so timeless and carnal to the musical intellect, the music resonates in the soul like echoing within the walls of a great cavern. The notes, and the words are not enough. You must have chemistry. And that’s what The Brother Brothers have in bushel baskets. Enough can’t be said positively about The Brother Brothers and Tugboats. (read full review)
Shinyribs – I Got Your Medicine
I don’t give a shit what you call it, Shinyribs and I’ve Got Your Medicine is just a damn good time. It’s a jambalaya of influences. Country, Dixieland, and other herbs and spices are certainly in there, but the main ingredient is that Louisiana soul that has somehow found a vessel in Kevin Russell and can’t be contained. And this music isn’t just presentation and fluff. Russell writes all but three of the twelve songs on this record, and of all the other assets to it, songwriting might ultimately be its strongest.
What I’ve Got Your Medicine does best is to sell you on the idea that Shinyribs is something that you should be a connoisseur of. The first part of this record is not all wild-assed like much of their live show. Kevin Russell really takes the time to hone in on his singing to ingratiate this music to you without all the visual aids and antics of the live experience.
Shinyribs is not for everyone, but it should be, if folks would just get off their high horses and submit to the good times and good vibes Kevin Russell brings. (read full review)
Other Albums Highly Recommended:
Rodney Crowell – Close Ties (read review)
Justin Townes Earle – Kids In The Street (read review)
Whitney Rose – South Texas Suite (read review)
Chris Stapleton – From A Room: Vol. 1 (read review)
Angaleena Presley – Wrangled (read review)
Dead Man Winter – Furnace (read review)
Natalie Hemby – Puxico (read review)
Aaron Vance – My Own Way (read review)
Pete Schlegel – J-Town (read review)
Bobby Bare – Things Change (read review)
Valerie June – The Order of Time (read review)
Kody West – Green (read review)
AJ Hobbs – Too Much Is Never Enough (read review)
Sam Outlaw – Tenderheart (read review)
Ags Connolly – Nothin’ Unexpected (read review)
Wheeler Walker Jr. – Ol’ Wheeler (read review)
Lindi Ortega – Til The Goin’ Gets Gone (read review)
Left Lane Cruiser – Claw Machine Wizard (read review)
The Wild Reeds – The World We Built (read review)
Robyn Ludwick – This Tall to Ride (read review)
Aaron Watson – Vaquero (read review)
Scott H. Biram – The Bad Testament (read video review)
Liz Rose – Swimming Alone (read review)
Sallie Ford – Soul Sick (read review)
Dale Watson and Ray Benson – Dale & Ray (read review)
Brad Paisley – Love & War (read review)
Sarah Shook & The Disarmers – Sidelong (read review)
Other Albums On The Radar, But Not Reviewed Yet:
Note: Just because an album has not been reviewed yet (or is not included here) does not mean it won’t be in the future. So chill.
- The Secret Sisters – You Don’t Own Me Anymore
- Ray Scott – Guitar For Sale
- Rich O’Toole – American Kid
- The Country Side of Harmonica Sam – A Drink After Midnight
- Amanda Anne Platt and the Honeycutters
- Haybale – The Songs of Wayne Kemp
- Trixie Mattel – Two Birds
- Bob Wayne – Bad Hombre
- Sara Petite – Road Less Traveled
- Vandoliers – The Native
- John Baumann – Proving Grounds
- Pokey LaFarge – Manic Revelations
- Tony Jackson – Self-Titled
- The Steel Woods – Straw in the Wind
- Them Old Crap – Galeria Fantasma
- Glen Campbell – Adios
- Kayla Luky – Back To Dirt
- Jake Worthington – Hell of a Highway
- Bruce Robison and the Back Porch Band
- Richard Lynch – Mending Fences
- Daryl Dodd – Long Hard Ride
- David Childers – Run Skeleton Run
- The Rife & The Writer – Flowers of Chance
- James Carothers – Relapse
- Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway
- Franklin County Trucking – The Adventures Of…
- Cory Branan – Adios
- Andrew Combs – Canyons of My Mind
- Sera Cahoone – From Where I Started
- Koe Wetzel – Noise Complaint
- Nikki Lane – Highway Queen